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Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning: An In-Depth Comparison

penetration testing vulnerability scanning bug bounty hunting
February 09, 2024
7 mins read
Andrija Suberic

Andrija Suberic

Product Marketing Manager

People use penetration testing and vulnerability scanning interchangeably -- and it's easy to see why, especially as they are sometimes service packages by the same company, e.g., Trickest offers solutions for both automated vulnerability scanning and penetration testing.

Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning have a very similar goal: identifying potential weaknesses in a system or network that attackers could exploit. However, there are significant differences between the two methods -- and knowing the difference can save your business from a major security breach.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, also known as pentesting or ethical hacking, is a method of actively trying to take advantage of vulnerabilities in a system, so you can gain access and identify potential risks. This type of testing involves using various tools and methodologies to simulate an attack on the system from an external or internal perspective.

The objective of penetration testing is to hack into systems not for malicious purposes but to find any potential vulnerabilities before actual attackers do. Trained security professionals perform this type of testing under controlled conditions and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. They use the results to strengthen the security measures of a system.

A solid penetration test can reach up to 50,000 vulnerabilities. Plus, it's a requirement for many regulatory compliance standards, such as PCI DSS, FFIEC, and GLBA.

Advantages of Penetration Testing

Pentesting offers many benefits, and some of the biggest ones include:

Real-World Scenarios and Results

Penetration testing simulates an actual attack on a system, providing a better understanding of the potential risks and vulnerabilities. As a result, this method offers actionable insights, allowing businesses to craft a well-informed security strategy based on authentic and real-world data points.

In-Depth Analysis

Unlike automated vulnerability scanning, penetration testing involves manual and human-driven efforts to identify vulnerabilities, ensuring thoroughness. As a result, you get a more detailed and thorough system analysis, uncovering not only technical vulnerabilities but also human errors or process gaps that attackers could manipulate in their favor.

Cost-Effective Security Measures

Penetration testing can save organizations money in the long run. By identifying potential risks and vulnerabilities before real attackers use them against you, businesses can save on costly damages to their systems, data, and reputation. Plus, implementing security measures based on the results of a penetration test can prevent future expenses related to data breaches or cyber-attacks.

Disadvantages of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing also has some downsides that businesses should be aware of, including:

Time-consuming and Resource Intensive

Completing a thorough penetration test can take weeks, requiring a significant investment of time and resources. This means businesses must plan accordingly to ensure minimal disruption to their operations.

Ethical Hacker Expertise Required

As pentesting involves manual efforts and advanced technical skills, it requires a trained and experienced ethical hacker to conduct the test effectively. It can be costly for businesses that do not have an in-house security team or do not want to outsource the testing.

What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

A female employee working on vulnerability scanning in an office

Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, is a more passive approach to testing systems for vulnerabilities. It's useful but does not take the proactive approach to spotting vulnerabilities (and documenting them for further investigation) that penetration tests do.

Vulnerability scanning uses automated tools to scan systems and networks for known weaknesses. If the scanner finds vulnerabilities, it will report them so that they can be patched or otherwise addressed. Unlike penetration testing, vulnerability scanning does not actively exploit any weaknesses it finds.

A vulnerability scan is usually included in a penetration test but does not necessarily come as a package. While vulnerability scans can show you where the problem is, they frequently lack context -- which is precisely why businesses also need in-depth penetration testing."

Advantages of Vulnerability Scanning

True, vulnerability scans are passive and not as in-depth as penetration tests. That does not mean that they are without use. On the contrary, there are many benefits to running vulnerability scans, not the least of which include the following:

They Are Performed More Frequently

You can perform vulnerability scans much more frequently than penetration tests, which are time-consuming and labor-intensive. This way, businesses can keep a closer eye on possible security threats in near real-time and address any issues as soon as possible.

They Can Offer a Quick Overview of Your System's Security

Vulnerability scans take less time and, as a result, provide a quicker overview of your system's security. As a result, you can identify any pressing vulnerabilities that need immediate attention.

Disadvantages of Vulnerability Scanning

The speed and simplicity of vulnerability scanning come with some limitations:

Limited Scope

Vulnerability scans can only identify known vulnerabilities, limiting their scope. They cannot detect zero-day exploits or other unknown weaknesses that may exist.

Lack of Context

As mentioned earlier, vulnerability scans often lack context. They cannot fully understand the environment and may report false positives or miss critical vulnerabilities.

Operational Impact

Vulnerability scans can also impact system performance, especially with frequent use. This can be problematic for businesses that require high availability and minimal disruption to their operations.

Asset Inventory

For vulnerability scans to be effective, organizations must maintain an up-to-date inventory of all assets and systems on their network. If your business has a large number of devices and infrastructure components, maintaining this level of detail in your inventory can take time and effort.

Security Policies, Penetration Testing, and Vulnerability Scanning

If you want to make sure your systems are as secure as possible, you need to have thorough security policies in place. Some of the most important ones include:

Vulnerability Assessment Policy

This policy details the frequency of vulnerability scans, the responsible parties for performing them, and actions taken in case of findings.

Penetration Testing Policy

This policy defines the scope and frequency of penetration testing, as well as the rules of engagement and reporting procedures. It also ensures that ethical guidelines are followed during the testing process.

Change Management Policy

This policy regulates how changes are made to the system and how they are documented. It is essential for maintaining a secure environment and ensuring that any potential vulnerabilities introduced through changes are properly addressed.

Bug Bounty Hunting and Penetration Testing

Bug bounty hunting and penetration testing may seem similar, but they are different approaches to finding vulnerabilities.

Bug bounty hunters actively search for vulnerabilities in software and systems and report them to the company responsible for fixing them. They are often incentivized by rewards or recognition.

Penetration testers, conversely, simulate an attack on a system to identify potential vulnerabilities. They aim to provide an exhaustive report of all vulnerabilities found and recommend measures to address them. Both approaches have their advantages and are often used in conjunction with each other for maximum security. Bounty hunting can help identify unknown vulnerabilities, while penetration testing provides a more detailed analysis and recommendations for remediation.

Skills a Penetration Tester Should Have

Penetration tester securing companies via laptop

Penetration testing requires a rich set of skills, including:

  • Extensive knowledge of programming languages such as C++, Python, and Ruby.
  • Knowledge of operating systems and their vulnerabilities.
  • Understanding of networking protocols and security controls.
  • Familiarity with hacking tools and techniques.
  • Knowledge of cryptography and encryption methods.
  • Familiarity with various attack strategies malicious hackers use, such as gaining unauthorized remote access or using SQL injection techniques.
  • The ability to run both internal and external tests, simulating the viewpoints of an insider on the network and a hacker attempting to breach the system over the internet.
  • A thorough understanding of front-end web technologies, including but not limited to Javascript and HTML.
  • Proficiency in web application programming languages, for instance, Python and PHP.
  • Knowledge of Web APIs, including restful and SOAP.
  • Experience with network technologies like firewalls, switches, and intrusion detection systems (IDS).
  • Understanding of various networking protocols like TCP/UDP, and SSL.
  • Expertise in different operating systems, including Linux and Windows.
  • Proficiency in scripting languages like Python and Perl.
  • Proficiency in using various tools, such as Trickest.

How Often Do You Need Penetration Testing & Vulnerability Scans?

The frequency of penetration testing and vulnerability scans depends on various factors, including industry regulations, data sensitivity, and the organization's size. However, as a general rule of thumb, performing vulnerability scans quarterly or whenever significant changes are made to the system is recommended. Penetration testing should be performed at least annually or after any major changes to the network infrastructure.

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scans: Which One Is Best For You?

Ultimately, both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are crucial in maintaining a secure system. It is vital to have a thorough security policy that outlines the frequency and scope of both types of testing for maximum protection against conceivable threats. Consider your organization's specific needs, industry regulations, and budget when deciding which approach is best for you. Rather than choosing between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, using both methods in tandem is best. By combining the two, you can fully understand your system's security posture and effectively address any potential weaknesses.

## It's Not Over When The Scan and Test Is Over

Vulnerability management is an ongoing process that requires constant attention and updates. Simply performing scans and tests is not enough to ensure the security of your systems. It's crucial to have a plan in place for addressing any vulnerabilities found during testing and regularly reviewing and updating your security policies and procedures.

Regular training on security awareness for employees can also help prevent potential vulnerabilities caused by human error. Additionally, staying informed about the latest security threats and updates in technology is crucial for maintaining a strong defense against potential attacks.

You can help mitigate risk and keep your organization's data safe from malicious actors by continuously monitoring and updating your systems. Overall, a comprehensive and proactive approach to security is necessary to stay ahead of potential threats and maintain a secure environment.

It's also critical to continue taking action and regularly reviewing and updating your security measures. Remember that staying sharp and trying to pre-empt any issue is key to maintaining a powerful defense against potential vulnerabilities. Always be prepared to take swift action to address any findings from penetration testing or vulnerability scanning, and stay educated on the latest security threats and best practices for securing your systems.

Are you just starting to use open-source tools, and want to safeguard your company’s digital assets and ensure you’re buckled up and protected against unwanted intrusion? Sign up for Trickest, and get up to speed with penetration testing and vulnerability scanning.


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